a few weeks ago, while visiting the tate modern in london, i witnessed something stupidly remarkable. there is a sand blasted glass window at the members’ lounge on the top floor of the tate modern that sheds light on to the lobby where the stairs and the lifts are. while waiting for the lift with a friend this american middle-aged tourist found himself fascinated by the shadows projected on to the glass panel by the stools and tables on the other side. he was so fascinated, that he even took some pictures of them, and kept talking about it while descending on the lift. when my friend and i were walking around the south bank, i joked about how many other people have found those same shadows fascinating on instagram. it did not take much more than a couple of taps to find the same shot a dozen times on the tate memeber’s lounge geo-tag.
at home, i went down the whole chain of pictures, that started almost six years ago, just when instagram fist was released on the apple app store. so, why are we photographing the same things, almost the same way?
obviously, instagram is not the most reliable tool for this kind of survey, but considering that five and a half million people visit the tate every year, and the total figures for instagram (200 million users, whom upload 60 million pictures every day) allow me to consider it a sufficient widespread tool to make some assumptions.
not everyone on instagram visits london, not every instagrammer that visits london goes to the take. even if they have, they might have not used the correct tag for the picture. also. i am sure that there is more people out there who took the picture with a regular camera and did not upload it to the internet. if one goes through the geo-tag, one can find numerous images of the shadowy stools, but not enough to be something completely persistent, just popular enough to rise questions about the nature of its recurrence.
drawing from pierre bourdieu’s essay on taste, one can assume that those who took the picture belong to a certain social class that share certain aesthetic values and codes. first of all, because they are visiting the tate, which implies already an interest for the arts. but, why that particular view and not the staircase, or the lifts?
one could argue that there are finite ways of photographing a subject, and that at some point the images would have to be similar. but, this is not about the fact that we aim for symmetry, or the fact that we aim for breaking the symmetry in favour of perspective when we take a picture. what i am trying to focus on here is the theme of the picture. why do we take a picture of one thing and not another. is it a matter of hierarchy of photographic subjects, linked to a cultural tradition? are we really free individuals when we click the button on our cameras?
shadows as a theme is at the very core of photography, for what is photography if not the game between shadow and light? just remember the impact of william henry fox talbot’s book of 1844-46 the pencil of nature, with its iconic photographs the open door, the ladder or the haystack, all of which included dropped shadows. even mr talbot is quoted to have said “i have captured a shadow!” as his personal eureka moment. at the top of my head i can also think of claude monet’s study of the shadowy façade of the cathedral of rouen under different lights. with photography and its immediacy, art started to pay attention to the shifting nature of light.
when people photograph the stools at the tate modern, are they subconsciously referencing all this artistic achievements? is there a photographic collective subconscious that we access when we are presented with a subject? is this what tradition means? one could think so. but i will argue that, if history has taught us anything, is that tradition can be faked, misunderstood, or can be reinterpreted the wrong way. becausethe meaning of tradition works the same way as aesthetic styles work towards form, because tradition is a style.
it is very interesting what i have called the “singapore paradox”. a few months ago i read and article on the singaporean interior design blog/magazine renotalk about this couple who had renovated their apartment in the “european tradition”. mrs charmaine low spent two months studying in germany and that left such an indelible impression that she fashioned her living quarters after the charm and elegance of a traditional european home . they even have the nerve of calling the result a renovation that resembles a european museum. of course, the result is far from european or traditional, it is grotesque, almost. lots of golden mouldings, crystal chandeliers, baroque-ish furniture, accompanied by completely off-colour oil landscapes and still lives in the worst barbizon-school rip off ever, everything framed in golden carved wood. they even have a fireplace (for decoration purposes) in tropical singapore. a fireplace to nothing, in the flat’s foyer. a fireplace whose only purpose is to hold the christmas stockings and be the background for the christmas tree.
this is an extreme case, but, at the same time, this happens all the time when we appropriate other traditions, when we use japanese-themed items, or buddhist-themed items, or african-themed items, to decorate our homes. but, when our “tradition” is exposed as a “style”, then we see the flaws of the solid cultural base we thought it was.
[more to come]